Maybe you’ve packed up a moving truck a time or two and relocated across town, or maybe even across the country. But can you really call your experience a migration? Probably not unless you brought 11 million of your kinfolk with you.
For this year’s Piccolo performance, the Charleston Symphony Orchestra Gospel Choir plans to pay homage to those 11 million African Americans who truly did take part in what is known as the Great Migration. “If you’re black and you’re from the South, you know the story of the Great Migration because you lived it,” says Gospel Choir founder Lee Pringle. “It’s a very moving story of this large, undocumented mass exodus of people after the Jim Crow oppressive laws were put in place after reconstruction. It allowed educated African Americans a way to move away from a life that was beginning to be dark indefinitely. The Northeast and out West and all these places that we now know as urban cities are the places that people went.”
The choir’s performance will tell the story of the migration through gospel music and narration. The production debuted during a sold-out performance on Palm Sunday this year, and the Piccolo performance will be the same program, with a few changes in song selection.
Pringle, who is also the show’s producer, says the idea came to him after reading the book The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson. It struck a chord with him because of his own personal experiences with the migration, he says.
“My own family lived the story of the great migration,” he says. “If you’re black in the South, you know exactly what this is about. Everybody grew up in some African-American church where, as a child, there was that one person from up north who would come around once a year. You never saw that person but that one time of year. They were stylish, they had the coolest shoes, and they just looked like big city. The little, small, rural-area people were just fascinated by them. It’s one of those cultural things.”
Pringle says gospel songs like “Peace, Be Still” and “Goin’ Up Yonder” are perfect for telling the story of the migration because the traditions of the Southern black churches were often the only things tying families together once they crossed the Mason-Dixon line. Southern musical traditions brought to the Northern cities often evolved, traces of which can still be found today, he says.
“You know the type of music that people refer to as R&B and soul? Those things were brought to the urban city because all the rural educated and non-educated blacks brought it with them,” Pringle says. “It all came from the churches that they left in the South.”
The choir’s performance will be divided into four parts that follow a historical timeline from the early 1900s to modern day. It will begin as many church services do, with the choir singing down the aisle in a processional, Pringle says. The style of music performed will also evolve from indigenous sacred music to toe-tapping gospel and ending with contemporary arrangements.
The 85-member choir will be under the direction of guest conductor Nathan L. Nelson, who is also the director of the CSO Spiritual Ensemble. “He was chosen because of his ability to interpret it in that old-school gospel way that I really wanted for this show,” Pringle says, “to really let people experience it in the narration and also in the music itself, because it definitely takes you back to yesteryear.”